Monday, March 22, 2010

The Windy White Mountains 100!

High temps (FAI): 25-33F
Low temps (FAI): -8 to -1 F, but much colder on the trail (easily -20F)
Mileage: 101

I don't even know where to start to tell of my first 100-mile winter bike race other than I'm PUMPED that I was even physically able to do it this spring. I remember very clearly when Debbie asked me last year if I would go for the Susitna 100 this coming year, I said "ehhh, I don't know...", super hesitant after I just took 10.5 hours to go 31 miles because of 40 degree temps and soft snow, and was completely wiped out and making no sense in the car on the way back to my friends' house. The farther the Lil' Su 50k went into my memory bank, and when I had my knee injury last summer, I became all of a sudden a lot more ambitious after losing months of playtime that was planned for the summer and not wanting to take things for granted.

One day at work back in early winter, Ed hands me these pieces of paper with a proposed race course for a new winter ultra-endurance race, doesn't say a word, and I am pretty sure I said "ohhh, wow!" and then responded, "no way, I would never do that. That would be terrible for biking!" I had already started a Susitna 100 race fund jar on my kitchen counter top, saving coins for the hefty registration price and gear I would need. This proposed White Mountains race challenged racers with a 100 mile loop just north of Fairbanks on some BLM trails with 7000+ ft of elevation gain, trails that I knew about but never ventured past 7 miles in. In fact, I never thought of it as a winter biking place - I had only skied and hiked there. I imagined someday becoming a good enough skier to get up there into what seemed so foreign, a place I could only wish to someday be able to get to under my own will power, never ever considering the option of biking there.

After my very forceful "no way!" all of a sudden, people who work in the same building as me, who had no idea that I was hoping to do the big Su this year, suddenly started asking if I was going to do the White Mountains race, in which I gave them similar answers to my first forceful one.. and then my brain reasoning started making circles and I started finding myself making excuses... "my thesis.. the bike.. the money.. the time.." until I realized that I was listening to myself be who I can't stand, someone making up excuses as to why they can't do something when there is literally nothing REALLY holding you back.

All of a sudden, I couldn't stop thinking about this proposed race, and I made a pros and cons list for the Susitna and the White Mountains race. The Susitna was going to be at the same time that I would need to have a draft of my thesis in.. that didn't sound like such a great idea. (those dates all got changed come January, but anyway..) Plus, it's a 7 hour drive to Knik, and then 7 hours back. Doing the drive, riding and pushing my bike 100 miles, and having to drive 7 hours back didn't sound like a fun plan either. I wondered if I had the energy this spring for such a feat. But somehow I ended up printing out the race registration form, signing it, and handing it in, all within 36 hours of me rejecting the idea outright once the race was announced publicly.

After spending one too many weekends slogging through snow and getting to know the White Mountains trails fairly well this winter, I was ready for this race to happen. During training, I started to get burnt out, as I started to think that I am not made out for this - an event that is surely self-consuming, as my good friends in town aren't into this endurance stuff.. so I found myself riding alone a lot. I am not such a loner type of person.. though we all love our space, I really do love being around friends and meeting people. Luckily, I did find some friends to do training rides with, and to share cabins with, and I am very much thankful for them, but the whole process started getting to me after awhile. It goes back to the quote by Chris McCandless that I truly believe in, "Happiness only real when shared".
Pre-race jitters had me in a pretty big mess a solid 24 hours before the race, having a hard time keeping calories down, wondering what all the other endurance athletes were doing.. probably all out having dinner together while I was counting calories on the floor and stressing about the thesis edits I had to get in by that night.
But Celine and Keith came over with a second dinner to calm my nerves a little bit by providing entertainment, while Celine made me a mix for my ipod. These guys were awesome, spending time with me the night before, and then getting up at 5am to drive me to the race start. 4 hours of sleep the night before wasn't what I was hoping for, but it happened anyway.

So it's race time!

The temp was about -15 that morning, with a biting wind, a rarity in interior Alaska. In fact, of how many weekends I spent up in the White Mountains this winter, a regular wind was not really found on any of those trips except for a little bit here or there. So needless to say, we were all pretty chilly. Here Celine opens up some hand warmers to start the day.
T. Lopez photo

Above, Bob and I before race start. Below, time to take big puffy off.. it's going to warm up in a couple of hours I swear!
The race start was terrifying for me even after so many weekends at the Wickersham dome trailhead. I don't looked scared, but I am. Even with so many familiar faces, I was feeling very very intimidated, wondering what made me think I could measure up to all of these ultra athletes. Celine agreed with me on the intimidation part, so at least I wasn't totally seeing things in a skewed manner. Maybe it's just being young and looking up to the people who you idol, and wondering how they can be so calm. I was still dry heaving up to going across to the start line, telling myself once I started riding and got into my groove that everything was going to be great and I would be able to keep eat easily.

Off we went (see first photo)! I stayed back a minute to let the strong people get ahead.. I'd rather pass them all later than start out too fast and burn out too early. The first 6 miles to the junction were a breeze, as I knew every little nook and cranny of that trail, having been on it so much this winter. I was actually chasing Jill for awhile, a well known winter endurance cyclist and writer from Juneau.. it was really awesome to officially meet her because we had corresponded via email in years past after I stumbled across her blog trying to find pics from the 24 hours of Kincaid four years ago. She is super nice. I had no problem keeping up with the middle of the pack until about mile 20 in a fairly effortless manner, when the sun finally started making an impact on the trail, and it began to become soft, a fear I had going into the race that my snowcats would be adversely effected by, compared to the 4" tires on most of the other racers' fatbikes.

My first memorable moment of the race was when Brij, another well known winter endurance cyclist surprised me when I thought I was alone on the trail. He was just ghost-riding the trail since he was on the waiting list and didn't make it into the race roster.
So anyway, Brij surprises me, I look back and see he is coming, and I swerved a little bit as I turned back, creating a domino effect, making HIM swerve, RIGHT into the left side of the trail, boom!

I stopped for a couple of seconds, and both of us were cracking up. Here is a well-traveled endurance athlete and he just landed himself into two feet of snow. We rode together and chatted for awhile until he took off up a steeper section of the hill and I floundered behind. At this point I was feeling comfortable, but trying to pace myself so I wouldn't burn out early. I had made it to Cache Mtn cabin in 7 hours a month ago (and very proud of it), with mechanical problems, and at this pace I was sure to beat that time.
But, as mentioned, the snow began to get soft and my time slowed down significantly, and pedaling began to require a lot of energy, as well as maneuvering downhills. When the snow gets warmer, the glide for skiing gets faster, so I began to see the top men skiers passing through. It was going to be a long day for me until the sun went away.I had my first crash after attempting to go down a hill too fast with the softer trail conditions, resulting into a swerve into the side of the trail (see diagram above). I was stuck in the side of the trail, there laughing pretty good at the mess I got myself in - as my right leg was pinned down in two feet of snow underneath my bike, and my left leg barely could reach the hard trail. Got myself into that mess, had to get myself out. If a skier were to fly by, they wouldn't have seen me there fast enough to even stop!
I managed to get out of my mess and down a steep hill just before Beaver Creek (the one where I found out I lost my back brake about a month ago), which was another thrilling one with the softer snow conditions. I took a breather at the bottom and to see if anyone else was coming down, and sure enough Russ was about to attempt the hill. He looked hesitant, so I egged him on a little.
He took the hill with force and rocked it! I was quite impressed that he didn't plow into me on the nearly 90 degree right turn at the bottom.

This section where the snow was getting soft, I deflated my tires slightly, but was afraid to deflate them too much, in fear of needing to reinflate the tires, and pop a valve like what happened last week. In retrospect, I probably should have deflated them more, but it was a chance I wasn't willing to take at the time.
Art Ward, another skier who I passed back and forth on the way to checkpoint 2.
At Cache Mtn cabin is where I lost my first significant amount of time, as I got sucked into talking with the other racers there and listening to their stories and figuring out who everyone was... of which I will claim as my weakest link. Ned is on the right - it's his birthday!
Just a mile after Cache Mtn cabin is where the other Julie, from Anchorage, caught up with me and ended up remaining with me for the next 60 miles. It was also her first 100-mile race, we met the day before, and found out in the next 26 hours that we have an awful lot in common.
Here Julie P negotiates our first real overflow on the course. The ice was the fun part of this race, making it feel a little more 'off-road', and was arguably the prettiest part of the scenery in the race, too.

The next 11 miles were an uphill climb to the Cache Mountain divide, a section of trail I was not able to get back and traverse before the race. This would be the section where I lost my sense of competition. I had the option of putting in a 62 mile day a month ago and do this section by myself, but I'm really glad I didn't go back there alone. I wouldn't have been ready for it at all going solo at that point in time, being 50 miles from any road. During the race, it didn't help that the wind was howling straight into our faces in this part of the course. Anyway, Julie P and I ganged up to traverse this unknown, icy portion of the trail together. I am glad she suggested it, and really, initiated it. I went into this race used to riding alone and knowing that that is what people do and loneliness is one of the toughest parts of these races. So when she caught up to me on that first patch of overflow and really initiated staying with me, it didn't seem like such a bad idea, plus I enjoyed having her company. I think at any given point one of us was stronger than the other at certain things, and could have broken away but didn't as the ice lakes loomed close ahead. On this stretch to the top of the divide, we were passed by many skiers, which is always a bit frustrating, but that is what we get for riding our bikes instead of choosing the more versatile method of skiing.
Here comes Bob the speedy skier! I expected to see him catch up at some point.
T. Saito photo

I can't remember where this overflow was, but another gorgeous part of the trail.
J. Perilla photo

The uphill was long. It didn't go straight up at all like I was expecting, but up and down over ice and was annoyingly unpredictable, really. I was kicking myself a little bit for not having traversed this section, but like I said, I don't think I could have done it alone before the race. Our goal was to get through the ice lakes by dark. The sun was beginning to go by the time we got to the top of the divide, but we were able to hop on our bikes into the wind and descent into the ice lakes before dark. With the wind, the snow got a little drifty so I struggled through here as well.

By the time we got to the top of the pass, I was beginning to abandon my bodily needs, like drinking water and eating food. Eating food meant having to stop, fish through my pogies, then deal with frozen solid food. Drinking meant I had to unzip my jacket as the wind chill lurched forward into my core. Neither sounds very complicated now, but at the time it seemed like a pain. Also, I needed to put more layers on, but that would have required me to strip down to my shorts in the dreaded headwind. But, our actions, or lack thereof, always lead to consequences, right? The consequences being that I started to get really cold, the first body part to lose feeling was the palm of my left hand. Not just the palm, but the part of the palm which was making contact with my handlebar while pushing the bike. I was a bit confused, as I was wearing mittens, and even through the mittens, it's not like I was touching metal or anything. But, I looked and a white spot was there. At this, I ripped open some hand warmer and stuffed them in there, focusing on the white spot.

Ah, the ice lakes! Arguably the most beautiful portion of the trail. Too bad my camera battery froze right there and I couldn't get a photo, but here is one of Jill's photos!
J. Homer photo

It is a mile (or less? It didn't seem that long, except for the part where I was being pushed the wrong way) long portion of "trail" with slightly angled glare ice, and nowhere to go but straight over it. The ice lakes would not have been bad without that killer wind. Can you sense a theme here? Me and the rare wind did not get along very well. As shown in the diagram above, I was trying to push forward on angled ice, and was being blown the opposite way that I was trying to go. I had one really major spill on the ice lakes, and began losing coordination and kept dropping my bike -maybe ten or so times. It was really frustrating, and I'm sure that the yells that I expended energy on weren't helping the situation, but maybe if I got angry at the ice then the blood would start flowing back into my frozen hands. With the constant blaring wind, I kept stopping, shaking my arms violently back and forth, trying to get feeling back in my hands (with three hand warmers in one mitten) and trying to get color back in the one in particular to no avail. Lucky for me, Dan the medic was at the end of the ice lakes and was able to help me get color and feeling back into my hands, and body for that matter. Julie was particularly patient during this hour+ long delay, which showed an awful lot about her character - I don't know if I would have been able to stay still out in the cold and wind with someone that I met yesterday and had no real attachment to, when a warm inviting cabin was only 7 miles ahead. This I appreciated more than anything on the trail, and was feeling very thankful for both her and Dan to be there.

I made a few mistakes in these few hours of the race, one being that I had stopped eating and drinking because that meant I had to take the time to stop for a few seconds, two that I didn't stop to put extra layers on. All I had on my legs were my softshell biking pants, which actually aren't completely solid - they have an open, mesh vented knee. BUT here's the thing - I couldn't even strip down to get a base layer on if I wanted to, because the buckle on my boots were frozen shut. That was my excuse why I didn't put the other layer on - but really, I HAD de-icer with me and could have taken care of it. So I was fully prepped, just not being smart about the situation, sure that if I kept one foot in front of the other then everything would be ok. If I would have at least stayed well-hydrated, things would have been better.

After a longer than expected rest at Windy Gap, checkpoint 3, we hit the trail again at 6am to finish off the rest of the course. I knew once we got to Windy Gap, the going would be easy from there, no matter how long we needed to take resting there. The rest of the trail was mostly trail that I had been on this winter, and only 40 miles out, a distance I knew I could walk if riding turned to pushing.

Monday morning was freakin' cold... at least 20/25 below on the trail as the sun was rising, and the wind was still there, though not nearly as vicious as it had been around sunset the night before. It was tough to kept my feet warm so I had to give into walking/jogging to fix that. Trystan (walking) was passing me walking on the uphills, and I was determined to not let him get too far ahead. I began to bonk a little bit again due to food deficit, and the food he forced in my face helped me substantially in getting going again. Thanks, Trystan! Temps finally warmed up on the way to Borealis cabin and the day began getting good. The other awesome thing is that the trail never ever softened up on Monday, which made for a very happy girl.
J. Perilla photo

Above, crossing some overflow after Windy Gap on Monday morning.
T. Saito photo

Ty and John Petersen at Borealis-LeFevre cabin, checkpoint 4! Mile 82 and feeling great!

T. Saito photo

Josh was out there floating around. It was so fun to see friends and familiar faces out on the course!
T. Saito photo

This is Tohru's photo, looking back on the trail after checkpoint 4. This overflow was at a pretty impressive slope!
Eddie and Julie in the last 20 miles of the trail, enjoying the beautiful day!
T. Saito photo

My coworker Janet and her husband Dean were at the trail shelter, mile 90, an unofficial checkpoint. It was easy to blow time chatting with them, too.

Next was tackling the Wickersham wall, which I decided I wanted to bolt up as fast as possible for whatever reason - mainly to see how fast I COULD get up it! Haha, it was a 25 min jolt up the hill.
Oh no! The race is almost over. :( I was ready for the downhill, but not quite ready for the trail to end.. amazing, the race didn't feel very long. I'm sure it helped that I rested at checkpoints, but it just felt like another day on the trail!I. Herriott photo

Ian got this photo of me coming in to my fan club ;) I love this photo! They are so sweet.
Celine got this photo of me coming into the finish. I couldn't stop smiling for the last 20 miles of the trail, tears of excitement welling up in my eyes.. so thankful to be able to experience this. Dan is also in this photo, the medic who got me warmed up under rough circumstances for the last 7 miles to Windy Gap.. arguably the person who really was there at the right time to help me to finish the race. That was the only point at which I questioned it. I never had any hallucinations, never had any really tough spots except for the icy lakes and a few minor bonks that were immediately fixed by food and water, never questioned being able to finish, except when I wasn't sure that my hand was going to thaw. I'm sure had I pushed harder, and been alone (especially), things would have been different. But I had a ridiculously good experience for my first 100-miler, and was ready to go another 20 miles pulling into the finish.
I. Herriott photo

Julie P finishes just after me - we were together the entire way until I let my brakes go on the last mile long hill, attempting yet again to get air on the snow moguls... for one last time ;)
I. Herriott photo

Joel, Taryn, Celine and I at the finish! Thanks so much guys for coming to cheer us on!!
T. Lopez/I. Herriott photo

Julie P and I at the end. Strangers two days ago, and good buddies now! I am pretty proud of us, having completed our first 100-miler with big smiles on our faces. Thanks Julie for helping to make this race a great experience!
Here's the food I had left after the race - quite a bit, but I wasn't eating NEARLY as much as I should have been... with my bike weighting 50lbs at the end of the race. Yikes, yo. That means I was carrying more than half of my body weight between the bike, gear and the 2 L of water on my back. I'm kind of glad I didn't weigh it til after the race, otherwise pushing up those hills may have felt slower!

Man, that was fun. 3 days later and I'm still on a post-race high. Thanks Ed and Ann and ALL of the volunteers for making this come together and for such a great first experience. And thanks to all of the encouragement from friends and family over the past 4 months. HUGE thanks to everyone who went riding with me, or shared cabins and trips together even if via another mode of transportation - you know who you are. I had such a great time meeting so many awesome people, who just love to be outside on the trails, too. On that note, I'll end with a list of gear-borrowage-thanks:

Amanda and Helena, for the awesome(!) bike lights
Mark O for the bivy for the last few weeks
Ned for the bivy on that one weekend
Celine for the winter rated sleeping bag I basically stole for the entire winter, and the camera for the race since I broke mine last weekend (don't worry, I have an all-encompassing warranty for a reason, HA!)
Joel for the GPS I used during training rides
Katie R for the GPS I used on the course
Dan C for taking the time to make my camelbak bag aka 'water baby'
Did I miss anybody???

Happy trails!


Wild Imagination said...

Great to read your race report, I've been checking for it! I've got a photo to send you, expect it soon. You've made me look forward to next year's race. Can't wait.

Jill said...

Great report, Julie! It's funny to me that the wind was such an abnormal thing. In the Southeast, similar winds (15-20 mph) would be considered normal if not light. So for me, the wind wasn't even a problem. The part where I struggled was when the wind stopped blowing and it got really, really cold. :-)

But congrats on the great finish! I'm actually kinda bummed I didn't really find anyone to ride with. I did ride a bit with Ted C., but at the time we were both kind of out of it and my knee hurt and neither of us were very chatty.

Anyhow, great race! Hope to ride with you in Fairbanks again sometime. Let me know if you're down in Anchorage.

AP said...

"The reason we race isn't so much to beat each other... but to be with each other."

I read this in "Born to Run" last night, and after hearing your race report I made sure to share. It was a great book, btw.

Love the pictures, love the stories. So proud of you, great job!!!


spruceboy said...

Great write up on the race - thanks for posting it. Congratulations on finishing! I was quite envious of the bikers at several points in the race - if I do the race again next year I think I will try it on a bike!

Julie said...

Great race report and great job out there! I especially like your drawing of the ice lakes and how it captured the mood so precisely. :)

I think you are pretty tough to come so close to frostbite and hypothermia and then just get back on your bike and continue riding into the cold. I knew you were going to continue though. That's why I stayed.

You should come down to do some rides on the Kenai this summer!


Dan said...

Julie ~ Way to go! Awesome! I'm glad we were able to get you warmed up enough to keep on riding! It was a bitter cold and windy night out there on the lakes. Great character in Julie P. to wait for you doing jumping jacks and ran circles for an hour to keep warm!

I'll see you gals next year!

Julie said...

Thanks everyone - I'll finally respond to you all :)
Dave - I look forward to seeing you out there next year. It was great to see you at the start and I'll treasure the "scared" photo forever.
Jill - yes the wind was my nemesis, I've turned into a wimp living up here! :)
Al - man I am totally not a team player because the entire time I was reciting the phrase from that sunscreen song, "the race is long, but in the end, the race is only with yourself". ha! Well, at least the quote made me feel better at the time.
Jay - I don't know, biking is hit or miss - on skis you are so much more versatile for having the trail change.. pushing a bike isn't exactly the most noble cause. I am the opposite and hope to be able to ski 100 miles someday! Props to you.
Julie - Kenai rides?! You're on! I have a few on my 'to-do' list.
Dan - thanks for telling me about the jumping jacks. I was in awe trying to figure out how Jules was staying warm out there!

Val said...

Jules I love your stick figure drawings! Who needs a camera??? Those had me cracking up!!!

Julie said...

Val, stick figures are my expertise. Maria stole all the artist genes in the family ;)